Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Meditations & Ruminations on Black Lives Matter – A New Strategy
- Eric Shapiro
- On July 21, 2016
Edited by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff
Black Lives Matter has reached an ironic turning point. On one hand, it has brought considerable public attention to police brutality. The deaths of police officers in multiple incidents have apparently resulted in an unprecedented public grappling with the reality of disproportionate, and at time unprovoked, police violence against African Americans and their communities.
Alas, undivided public sympathy for the victims of such abuses proved fleeting, as any substantial, reasoned reflection on its causes was cruelly interrupted by the murders of five police officers in Dallas at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The subsequent murder of three more in Baton Rouge furthermore complicates the picture, and may have shifted a considerable amount of public sympathies to police officers.It matters little to the forces of racial reaction that the deranged killers who slaughtered cops were unaffiliated with Black Lives Matter. No, the fact that they were African American was enough to set off a racial backlash, with the likes of former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani blaming the protest movement for encouraging violence against cops, and ever-bellicose Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump calling for “law and order” like 21st-century Richard Nixon returned to life.
But how has Black Lives Matter responded to this abrupt dramatic series of events? It depends on which of the constellation of loosely-affiliated organizations that comprise the movement one focuses on at any given time. Largely, they have continued to protest, as well they should; the notion that the murder of police officers by lunatics obligated BLM to abandon the streets and place their pressing cause on hold at a time when it commands considerable attention is ludicrous.
Nevertheless, it should be clear that protesting alone is not sufficient to create change. To be sure, the catharsis of marching in the street and chanting provocative slogans is necessary to galvanize activists and pressure the powers that be to institute much-needed reform. But this strategy is inherently limited. If BLM wishes to influence policy on a larger scale, it cannot continue to be reliant on police shootings to produce spurts of momentum, especially when said momentum can easily backfire when cop killers provoke a backlash before the implications of recorded incidents of police brutality can sink in.
Like the largely defunct Occupy Wall Street movement, which made a splash in the media before fizzling out into nothing, BLM is faced with a choice: adapt, or lapse into irrelevance. The sad truth of the 21st-century media landscape is that tragedies, no matter how horrific, progressively lose their novelty as slight variations on the same theme begin to all blend together in the news and social media. BLM is having a moment, but that’s all it is: a moment. Here’s what the movement, such as it is, must do if it wants to become an enduring force in American politics and capitalize on its immense promise, because moments are not enough.
With the best of intentions, Black Lives Matter attempted to forego a hierarchical leadership structure in favor of allowing regional organizations autonomy in terms of messaging and organizing, which worked well for a while. However, the movement’s discordant and at times incoherent response to recent events speaks to the need for a more streamlined approach. If BLM hopes for its power to transcend the streets into the world of politics, it must at least gesture at functioning as a political organization. This may mean keeping some of the group’s most outspoken activists in check in favor of promoting a unified message. This may clash with the intense zeal of some members, but we’ve got to face it: politics are a dirty business. For sure, the movement’s enemies – and they are a legion – have no problem playing dirty. In fact, they seem to enjoy it.
The group must settle on a major message and theme. Occupy Wall Street failed to realize its full potential because its leaders were never entirely clear on what they were after. Sure, they called attention to Wall Street abuses and rampant inequality. But all too often, these worthwhile messages – none of which came along with well-articulated solutions – got lost in a muddle of leftist hobby horses, many at best tangentially related to the movement’s chief goals.
To its credit, Black Lives Matter has kept its focus squarely on police brutality, especially the killing of apparently unarmed African American men. This was a great place to start; with the help of smart phone videos, such killings struck a visceral chord with citizens and politicians alike, including those not traditionally sympathetic to the BLM message.
However, anyone with a cursory knowledge of institutional racism in America knows that police brutality historically is only the tip of the iceberg. Without sacrificing their intense focus on street-level violence, BLM should lend its passion, numbers and organizational muscle to promoting such pressing causes as criminal justice reform, housing discrimination, and community policing initiatives. In presenting police brutality as part of a much larger pattern of discrimination, BLM, in addition to broadening its appeal, can to some degree inoculate itself against the smears that its members are just “street thugs” calling overtly or otherwise for violence against police officers.
This suggestion is obviously a difficult pill for BLM activists to swallow. I know from personal experience marching in NYC to protest the killing of Eric Garner that they are a fiercely independent lot. No small number of BLM activists feel, with some justification, that both parties have failed them and their cause.
Although decidedly liberal, they hold the Clintons partially responsible for the 1994 crime bill that led to an increase in mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentences, low-level drug convictions and other policies that disproportionately wreaked havoc on black lives.
Valid though these concerns may be, a movement that calls itself progressive must not hold onto grievances of the past, but look toward opportunities to advance its agenda in the future. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has spoken fluently and passionately about the need to combat institutional racism, perhaps belatedly recognizing the shortcomings of the Clinton administration’s previous efforts. Many Democrats, emboldened by grassroots activism, have expressed a similar willingness to work on these issues. And, incredibly, even a number of Republicans, particularly those with libertarian leanings, have endorsed reforms such as cutting down on mandatory minimum sentences and legalizing marijuana. A criminal justice package, however imperfect, would do a great deal to improve black lives.
Activists are right to be wary of elites’ promises after having been burned so many times before, but that does not mean they should refuse to endorse promising legislation and to mobilize voters to defeat Donald Trump, whose “law and order” stance would likely render any progress on civil rights impossible. BLM need not become a part of “the machine” to inspire and guide positive change within the Beltway.
That being said, its leaders would do well to work with establishment figures in both parties sympathetic to a clearly stated set of fundamental goals. These efforts, combined with continued street demonstrations when appropriate, would do far more to protect black lives than protests alone. Furthermore, a proven track record of successfully advocating for change inside the system and working relationships with key players in Washington and in local governments may help insulate BLM from the inevitable smear tactics of its organized and determined enemies.
Soon, Black Lives Matter will have to choose between ideological purity and functioning as an effective, durable instrument for change. This need not be a binary choice, but it will likely require some degree of difficult compromise. If the movement is truly about black lives, then those who comprise it, from the reluctant leadership to the rank and file, may have to set aside their rigid ideology in favor of the kind of principled pragmatism put to such great effect by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists who were accused by some of “selling out” in their time and are today remembered as the visionary heroes that they were.
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